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Francis Albert Sinatra, 12 Dec 1915 – 14 May 1998: The Best Is Yet To Come?

Twenty years after his death, 23 years since his last live performance and a quarter of a century removed from his final studio recordings, the stream of ‘new’ product from the Frank Sinatra camp has never stopped. And as long as there’s an audience out there and money to be made, there’s no reason to think it will dry up anytime soon.

Some from-the-vaults releases, like the acclaimed city-specific New York, Vegas or Frank Sinatra In Hollywood box sets, have been revelatory, with aesthetically pleasing packaging, detailed annotation, and previously unheard music that can stand alongside just about anything in the FS catalogue. Others have been little more than rejigged greatest hits packages, sometimes baited with superior remastering and a rarity or two for the faithful, who need another CD with My Way and Strangers In The Night like they need a hole in the head.

Standing Room Only, released by Frank Sinatra Enterprises Capitol/UMe earlier this month, is a stellar new collection that presents three captivating rare and previously unreleased Sinatra concerts from the 1960s (a second show with Count Basie at The Sands, Las Vegas that’s brand new to CD), 1970s and ‘80s. 

Frank Sinatra had the reputation as the most accomplished entertainer of the 20th Century for a reason. His acclaimed concerts always sold out, leaving many fans clamouring to try to score a spot to stand behind the seats or along a wall with a rare and coveted ‘standing room only’ ticket to the big show. Being in the room for the Chairman of the Board’s performances of Come Fly With Me, You Make Me Feel So Young, The Lady Is A Tramp or The Theme From ‘New York, New York’, and so many more of his iconic songs met have been a thrilling experience for anyone who had the opportunity.

But there’s still a treasure trove of unreleased Sinatra music out there that has yet to see the light of day. A lot of it circulated on bootleg CDs and LPs for years until Nancy Sinatra, acting on behalf of her father’s estate, almost singlehandedly put a stop to the trade a few years back. You can’t really blame her for clamping down, although her claims that Frank hated bootlegs passionately seem wildly exaggerated, if not downright mistaken. Regardless, it’s made collecting Ol’ Blue Eyes’ music a lot less fun for a lot of hardcore fans.

Mind you, Sinatra’s estate has, over the years, taken several bootlegs, cleaned them up a little, and put them on the market for the masses to enjoy, which is obviously a great idea. Here’s another four that they should get to before I’m back here writing about Frankie’s 105th birthday celebration in 2020.

Duets For One (July-October 1993)

Even at the end of his career, with his voice and his memory shot, Sinatra could still make magic when you stuck him in front of a microphone. The only problem is that Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Chrissie Hynde, and most the other ill-advised electronic ‘duet partners’ that got paired with Frank on the two Duets albums of 1993 and 1994 were woefully unsuited to the material.

At least Madonna, no match for anyone in the vocal stakes, had the good sense to decline to take part in the cheesefest. Pavarotti, however, who, in case you’ve forgotten, was an opera singer, didn’t, and turns in the most unintentionally hilarious vocal I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. Regrets? I ‘ad a few… Yeah, mainly ever trying to listen to that execrable version of My Way in the first place. It’s for this reason Duets and Duets II are The Voice’s two most unlistenable albums.

When the original contract for the Duets project was drawn up, the plan called for three albums. While there was no notice or announcement for a third duets release, it was widely thought for a while that Capitol Records would be releasing, as a third disc, Sinatra’s complete unadulterated solo recordings of the songs used for the albums, before the guest vocalists were electronically added. While the solo sessions would find their way into the public, traded privately as a bootleg in America and released on several low budget pirate labels throughout Europe, they were never given an official release. While they’re far from great Sinatra, they’re never embarrassing and often quite moving. And as a document of FS’s last studio recordings, they deserve to be widely heard.

Arie Crown Theatre, Chicago (7/18/65)

As justifiably legendary as Sinatra’s 1966 shows with the Count Basie Orchestra (immortalised on that celebrated live album Sinatra At The Sands) may be, their two-week tour from the previous summer is even more fabled among die-hard Sinatraheads. Perhaps the mystique exists just because Sinatra supposedly didn’t allow any of the shows to be professionally recorded, although audience tapes have been around for ages. But a few years ago, a decent sounding soundboard recording from this Chicago show finally surfaced. The performances even more swingin’ than on SATS, if such a thing is possible, and the superb set list is radically different. Frank fans haven’t lived until they’ve heard the Basie-ized version of the great nocturnal torcher In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning.

The Lost Reprise Recordings (1974-88)

In 1995, Warners/Reprise released the 20-disc behemoth The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings. They lied. There’s still an album’s worth of unreleased tracks and noteworthy alternate versions in them there vaults, most of them from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Sinatra was in great voice but wasn’t always sure of what material to record (cf the hilarious 1977 disco version of Night & day, above). Some of it has snuck out on bootlegs, but much remains locked away. Nancy Sinatra excitedly reported that a 1978 studio session, long thought lost, had resurfaced, but fifteen years later, most of it is still unheard.

The Perfectly Frank Sessions (1953-55)

Would you believe me if I told you that over 60 studio recordings exist of Frank Sinatra singing with a small jazz band? And that among those 60-plus songs are over two dozen that he never recorded before or after in the studio? And that among those songs are fascinating versions of standards like S’Wonderful, Love Me Or Leave Me, I’m In The Mood For Love, and Them There Eyes. And that they were recorded during the mid ’50s, the era which produced some of his greatest records? Assuming you’re a Sinatra fan, you’d probably say “You’re kidding!” followed by “How can I get a hold of this stuff?” To which I’d answer “No,” and “You can’t.” Not officially anyway.

Shockingly, astonishingly, inconceivably, these tracks, which were recorded for To Be Perfectly Frank – Sinatra’s twice weekly NBC radio show – have never seen the light of day commercially, although they were available on bootlegs for many years. Why? Beats me. These recordings would force a re-evaluation from all the naysayers who claim he wasn’t a jazz singer, and they would also add a lot of classic songs ad standards to his canon. This goldmine is nothing less than the Great Lost Sinatra Album, which is to say the Great Lost American Pop Album.

Now that the race is on to get records into the racks and online before people stop buying music altogether, I’ve got high hopes that at least some of this stuff will wind up in the bins at your local record store, or at least on your downloading service of choice, before too long. But even if the powers that be keep sitting on their hands, I’m not too worried. File sharing and downloading, the beast that almost killed the music business, is also the thing that’s keeping the bootleg business alive and well. Now that you don’t need stores or pressing plants — or, for that matter, money — to get music to the masses, it’s tougher than ever to stop the distribution of verboten goodies from the record companies’ vaults. To which I say, Ring-a-ding ding!

Steve Pafford

With thanks to Tony Sachs at Part one of this feature is here

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